There’s a phenomenon that’s been ongoing in the music industry for the last 30 years called the Loudness War. It goes like this: Audio producers are pressured, both internally and externally, commercially and artistically, into creating louder and louder albums. However, of course, the loudness of a given audio recording has far more to do with how it’s played back than how it’s recorded, assuming all of the data is intact and accurate. Past a certain point, given digital technology, one reaches a maximum volume that the signal can reach: Anything past that, and you’re losing information.
Anything past that, and you’re not making the sound louder any more, you’re just compressing the range of sound up around the top, and warping it tremendously. It’s as though, in an attempt to make a painting the most vivid red, the artist avoided using any other colors: It might still look okay, it would certainly be very red, and it might even be recognizably similar to the piece it once was, but it would be overwhelming, bloody, tiring, monotonous. If it were but one painting, that wouldn’t be so bad: It would be a bold, if somewhat off-putting, artistic choice. But if it were all paintings?
So it is with over-compressed music. It is tyrannical, overbearing, terrible – and it is everywhere.
By everywhere, I don’t just mean in the realm of music recording, I mean that in some form this tendency persists in all arenas of artistic pursuit. We race to make the most intense action, the edgiest dramas, the funniest comedies, and everywhere the most foolish among us convince themselves that the best way to achieve this is to make every moment intense, edgy, funny.
These things do not exist in a vacuum. Every emotion you convey to your audience is judged and weighed in relation to each other. Non-stop action turns out to be, in practice, really damn boring: With no contrast of fast to slow, of tense to relaxed to visceral, you have nothing. You have a flat line. And, as long as you’re attempting to convey an emotion only by hammering on that one note over and over, that’s all you can have.
Are you trying to make your audience feel sorrow? Don’t make them watch the protagonist get beat down every day, ground down to dust: Show the protagonist trying to escape that, feel the triumph just out of reach, and take it away from them. Show them the fall instead of just the unmoving carcass after the landing. Trying to make a comedy? Have at least one character who takes things dead serious, who’s just trying to get something done and is interrupted by outlandish occurrences, but it never seems to quite sink in how strange these things are. Add a context of sanity within which the absurd occurrences can take place.
The point is, no matter what emotion or idea you are trying to invoke, you must include its opposite to define it, or you end up with… nothing.
When everything’s over the top, all you have achieved is just slightly relocating the top.
Most experienced artists come to understand this instinctively, but it’s a remarkably common stumbling block even among those who should know better. And, to be fair, even contrast can be dangerous when taken too far: The mundane detail you wanted to seem poignant instead comes across as comical, or the comic relief to your tragedy seems to be mere tastelessness.
This is where true artistry lies: In finding the right mix of intense, chaotic, suspenseful, cathartic, reflective, outlandish, surreal, mundane – that mix that can show what you’re trying to show, can convey what you wish to convey, without seeming clumsy, blunt, flat. It’s a broad target to hit, and you can do a lot within those constraints, but it’s also an easy target to miss if you forget it’s there.
All things are relative.